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Velocity Is Relative; Reference Frames


Example 3.7
A Bullet Fired Horizontally
A bullet is fired horizontally from the top of a cliff that is
20.0 m above a long lake. If the muzzle speed of the bullet
is 500.0 m/s, how far from the bottom of the cliff does the
bullet strike the surface of the lake? Ignore air resistance.

Strategy We need to find the total time of flight so that

we can find the horizontal displacement. The bullet is
starting from the high point of the parabolic path because
viy = 0. As usual in projectile problems, we choose the yaxis to be the positive vertical direction.
Known: y = 20.0 m; viy = 0; vix = 500.0 m/s. To find: x.

Solution The vertical displacement through which

the bullet falls is 20.0 m. The relationship between y
and t is

y = 2(vfy + viy) t
Substituting viy = 0 and vfy = viy + ay t = ay t yields
y = ay(t)2 t =

2 y


The horizontal displacement of the bullet is

2 y

2 (20.0 m)
= 500.0 m/s 
 = 1.01 km


x = vix t = vix

Discussion How did we know to start with the ycomponent equation when the question asks about the
horizontal displacement? The question gives vix and asks
for x. The missing information needed is the time during which the bullet is in the air; the time can be found
from analysis of the vertical motion.
We neglected air resistance in this problem, which is
not very realistic. The actual distance would be less than
1.01 km.

Practice Problem 3.7 Bullet Velocity

Find the horizontal and vertical components of the bullets velocity just before it hits the surface of the lake. At
what angle does it strike the surface?

At the beginning of the chapter, we asked why the clam does not fall straight down
when the gull lets go. The gull is flying horizontally with the clam, so the clam has the
same horizontal velocity as the gull. When the gull lets go, the net force on the clam is
downward due to gravity. The clam falls toward Earth, but since ax = 0 the clam retains
the same horizontal component of velocity as the gull. Therefore, the clam is a projectile starting at the top of its parabolic trajectory.



The idea of relativity arose in physics centuries before Einsteins theory. Nicole Oresme
(13231382) wrote that motion of one object can only be perceived relative to some
other object. Until now, we have tacitly assumed in most situations that displacements,
velocities, and accelerations should be measured in a reference frame attached to
Earths surfacethat is, by choosing an origin fixed in position relative to Earths surface and a set of axes whose directions are fixed relative to Earths surface. After learning about relative velocities, we will take another look at this assumption.

Relative Velocity
Suppose Wanda is walking down the aisle of a train moving along the track at a constant
velocity (Fig. 3.23). Imagine asking, How fast is Wanda walking? This question is not
well defined. Do we mean her speed as measured by Tim, a passenger on the train, or
her speed as measured by Greg, who is standing on the ground and looking into the train
as it passes by? The answer to the question How fast? depends on the observer.
Figure 3.24 shows Wanda walking from one end of the car to the other during a time
interval t. The displacement of Wanda as measured by Timher displacement relative
to the trainis rWT = vWT t. During the same time interval, the trains displacement
relative to the ground is rTG = vTG t. As measured by Greg, Wandas displacement is



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Chapter 3


Motion in a Plane


Figure 3.23 Tim and Greg


watch Wanda walk down the aisle

of a train. Wandas velocity with
respect to Tim (or with respect to
the train) is vWT; Tims velocity
with respect to Greg (or with
respect to the ground) is vTG.

Figure 3.24 Wandas

displacement relative to the
ground is the sum of her
displacement relative to the train
and the displacement of the train
relative to the ground.



rTG = vTG t


rWT = vWT t

rWG = vWG t

partly due to her motion relative to the train and partly due to the motion of the train relative to the ground. Figure 3.24 shows that rWT + rTG = rWG. Dividing by the time
interval t gives the relationship between the three velocities:
vWT + vTG = vWG

Making the Connection:

relative velocities for pilots
and sailors


To be sure that you are adding the velocity vectors correctly, think of the subscripts as if
they were fractions that get multiplied when the velocity vectors are added. In Eq. (3-15),
  =  so the equation is correct.
Relative velocities are of enormous practical interest to pilots of aircraft, sailors,
and captains of ocean freighters. The pilot of an airplane is ultimately concerned with
the motion of the plane with respect to the groundthe takeoff and landing points are
fixed points on the ground. However, the controls of the plane (engines, rudder,
ailerons, and spoilers) affect the motion of the plane with respect to the air. A sailor has
to consider three different velocities of the boat: with respect to shore (for launching
and landing), with respect to the air (for the behavior of the sails), and with respect to
the water (for the behavior of the rudder).

Example 3.8
Flight from Denver to Chicago
An airplane flies from Denver to Chicago (1770 km)
in 4.4 h when no wind blows. On a day with a tailwind, the plane makes the trip in 4.0 h. (a) What is the wind
speed? (b) If a headwind blows with the same speed, how
long does the trip take?

Strategy We assume the plane has the same

airspeedthe same speed relative to the airin both
cases. Once the plane is up in the air, the behavior of the
wings, control surfaces, etc., depends on how fast the air
is rushing by; the ground speed is irrelevant. But it is not
irrelevant for the passengers, who are interested in a displacement relative to the ground.

Solution Let vPG and vPA represent the velocity of the

plane relative to the ground and the velocity of the plane
relative to the air, respectively. The wind velocitythe
velocity of the air relative to the groundcan be written
vAG. Then vPA + vAG = vPG. The equation is correct since
  = . With no wind,
1770 km
vPA = vPG =  = 400 km/h
4.4 h

Continued on next page



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Velocity Is Relative; Reference Frames


Example 3.8 Continued


vPA (400 km/h)

vAG (40 km/h)

vPG (440 km/h)

Figure 3.26

vPA (400 km/h)

vPG (360 km/h)

vAG (40 km/h)

Addition of velocity vectors

in the case of a headwind.
Lengths of vectors are not to

Figure 3.25
Addition of velocity vectors in the case of a tailwind. Lengths
of vectors are not to scale.

(a) On the day with the tailwind,

1770 km
vPG =  = 440 km/h
4.0 h
We expect vPA to be the same regardless of whether there
is a wind or not. Since we are dealing with a tailwind, vPA
and vAG are in the same direction, which we label as the
+x-direction in Fig. 3.25. Then,
vPAx + vAGx = vPGx
vAGx = vPGx vPAx = 440 km/h 400 km/h = 40 km/h
vAGy = 0, so the wind speed is vAG = 40 km/h.
(b) With a 40 km/h headwind, vPA and vAG are in opposite
directions (Fig. 3.26). The velocity of the plane with
respect to the ground is
vPGx = vPAx + vAGx = 400 km/h + (40 km/h) = 360 km/h

The ground speed of the plane is 360 km/h and the trip
1770 km
 = 4.9 h
360 km/h

Discussion Quick check: the trip takes longer with a

headwind (4.9 h) than with no wind (4.4 h), as we expect.

Practice Problem 3.8 Rowing Across the Bay

Jamil, practicing to get on the crew team at school, rows a
one-person racing shell to the north shore of the bay for a
distance of 3.6 km to his friends dock. On a day when
the water is still (no current flowing), it takes him 20 min
(1200 s) to reach his friend. On another day when a current flows southward, it takes him 30 min (1800 s) to row
the same course. Ignore air resistance. (a) What is the
speed of the current in m/s? (b) How long does it take
Jamil to return home with that same current flowing?

Equation (3-15) applies to situations where the velocities are not all along the same
line, as illustrated in Example 3.9.

Example 3.9
Rowing Across a River
Jack wants to row directly across a river from the east
shore to a point on the west shore. The width of the river
is 250 m and the current flows from north to south at
0.61 m/s. The trip takes Jack 4.2 min. In what direction
did he head his rowboat to follow a course due west
across the river? At what speed with respect to still water
is Jack able to row?

Strategy We start with a sketch of the situation

(Fig. 3.27). To keep the various velocities straight, we
choose subscripts as follows: R = rowboat; W = water; S
= shore. The velocity of the current given is the velocity
of the water relative to the shore: vWS = 0.61 m/s, south.
The velocity of the rowboat relative to shore (v
RS) is due
west. The magnitude of vRS can be found from the displacement relative to shore and the time interval, both of
which are given. The question asks for the magnitude and

Water current

Path of rowboat
relative to shore
250 m


Not to scale

Continued on next page


Figure 3.27
Rowing across
a river.



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Chapter 3


Motion in a Plane

Example 3.9 Continued

direction of the velocity of the rowboat relative to the

water (v
RW). The three velocities are related by
vRW + vWS = vRS
To compensate for the current carrying the rowboat
south with respect to shore, Jack heads (points) the rowboat upstream (against the current) at some angle to the
north of west.

Solution In a sketch of the vector addition (Fig. 3.28),

the velocity of the rowboat with respect to the water is at
an angle q north of west. With respect to shore, Jack travels 250 m in 4.2 min, so his speed with respect to shore is
250 m
vRS =  = 0.992 m/s
4.2 min 60 s/min
We can find the angle at which the rowboat should
be headed by finding the tangent of the angle between
vRW and vRS:
0.61 m/s
tan q = 
0.992 m/s
q = 32 N of W



The speed at which Jack is able to row with respect

to still water is the magnitude of vRW. Since vRS and vWS
are perpendicular, the Pythagorean theorem yields
v2WS + v
(0.61 m
/s)2 + (
0.992 m
RW = 
RS = 

= 1.16 m/s
Jack rows at a speed of 1.16 m/s with respect to the water.

Discussion If vRS and vWS had not been perpendicular, we could not have used the Pythagorean
theorem in this way. Rather, we would use the
component method to add the two vectors.
If Jack had headed the rowboat directly west, the
current would have carried him south, so he would have
traveled in a southwest direction relative to shore. He has
to compensate by heading upstream at just such an angle
that his velocity relative to shore is directed west.

Practice Problem 3.9 Heading Straight

If Jack were to head straight across the river, in what
direction with respect to shore would he travel? How
long would it take him to cross? How far downstream
would he be carried? Assume that he rows at the same
speed with respect to the water as in Example 3.9.


Figure 3.28

At the beginning of this chapter, we asked what the path followed by the falling
clam looks like as seen by the gull flying through the air. With respect to a beachcomber
on the ground, the clam has a constant horizontal velocity component given to it by the
gull and a changing vertical component of velocity due to the gravitational force
(Fig. 3.29a); the clam moves in a parabolic path. If the gull continues to fly at the same
horizontal velocity after dropping the clam, it is directly overhead when the clam hits
the rock because they both have the same constant horizontal component of velocity
with respect to Earth.


Figure 3.29 (a) Beachcomber

view: The gull flies along a horizontal line while the clam
follows a parabolic path.
(b) Birds eye view: The gull
sees the rocks moving while the
clam drops straight down,
landing upon the rocks just as
the rocks move under the clam.

vGG = 0

vRR = 0



G = gull
C = clam
R = rocks




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Conceptual Questions


In its own reference framethat is, using its own position as the origin of the coordinate axesthe gull sees the clam drop straight down toward the ground while rocks
and other objects on the beach are moving horizontally (Fig. 3.29b). The bird sees a collision between the horizontally moving rocks and the vertically falling clam. At any
instant, if the velocity of the clam with respect to the gull is vCG, the velocity of the gull
with respect to the rocks is vGR, and the velocity of the clam with respect to the rocks is
vCR, then vCG + vGR = vCR.


Vectors are added graphically by drawing each vector so that its tail is placed at the tip of the previous
vector. The sum is drawn as a vector arrow from the
tail of the first vector to the tip of the last. Addition
 + B
 = B
 + A.

of vectors is commutative: A
Vectors are subtracted by adding the opposite of the
 = A
 + (B).

second vector: A
Addition and subtraction of vectors algebraically
using components is generally easier and more accurate than the graphical method. The graphical
method is still a useful first step to get an approximate answer.
To find the components of a vector, first draw a right
triangle with the vector as the hypotenuse and the
other two sides parallel to the x- and y-axes. Then
use the trigonometric functions to find the magnitudes of the components. The correct algebraic sign
must be determined for each component. The same
triangle can be used to find the magnitude and direction of a vector if its components are known. To add
vectors algebraically, add their components to find
the components of the sum:
 + B
 = C,
 then Ax + Bx = Cx and Ay + By = Cy
if A
The x- and y-axes are chosen to make the problem
easiest to solve. Any choice is valid as long as the
two are perpendicular. If the direction of the acceleration is known, choose x- and y-axes so that the
acceleration vector is parallel to one of the axes.

Conceptual Questions
1. Why is the muzzle of a rifle not aimed directly at the
center of the target?
2. Does the monkey, coconut, and hunter demonstration
still work if the arrow is pointed downward at the monkey and coconut? Explain.
3. Can a body in free fall be in equilibrium? Explain.
4. Is it possible for two identical projectiles with identical
initial speeds, but with two different angles of elevation,

The instantaneous velocity vector is tangent to the

path of motion.
The instantaneous acceleration vector does not have
to be tangent to the path of motion, since velocities
can change both in direction and in magnitude.
For a projectile or any object moving with constant
acceleration in the y-direction, the motion in the xand y-directions can be treated separately. Since ax =
0, vx is constant. Thus, the motion is a superposition
of constant velocity motion in the x-direction and
constant acceleration motion in the y-direction.
The kinematic equations for an object moving in two
dimensions with constant acceleration along the yaxis are
x-axis: ax = 0

y-axis: constant ay

vx = 0 (vx is constant) vy = ay t
x = vx t


y = 2(vfy + viy) t


y = viy t + 2ay(t)2 (3-12)

viy2 = 2ay y


To relate the velocities of objects measured in different reference frames, use the equation
vAC = vAB + vBC


where vAC represents the velocity of A relative to C,

and so forth.

to land in the same spot? Explain. Ignore air resistance

and sketch the trajectories.
5. If the trajectory is parabolic in one reference frame, is
it always, never, or sometimes parabolic in another reference frame that moves at constant velocity with
respect to the first reference frame? If the trajectory can
be other than parabolic, what else can it be?
6. You are standing on a balcony overlooking the beach.
You throw a ball straight up into the air with speed vi
and throw an identical ball straight down with speed vi.